Friday, October 21, 2005

Fire or Ice: The Worst-Case Scenarios of the LNG Debate

Thousands of people with no jobs. Schools closed. No electricity. People freezing to death. ... Scared yet?

That's the worst-case scenario envisioned by the Providence Journal in an editorial excoriating the "worst-case scenarios" (terrorists, explosions, balls of flame -- you get the picture) put forth by opponents of LNG terminals.

If we don't build more LNG terminals (and soon! -- the editorial laments the inability to build one for this winter) here's what might happen:

Sometime -- say, this winter -- the natural-gas pipeline from the Gulf Coast, which supplies much of the Eastern Seaboard (supplemented by natural gas from Canada), could go empty, especially if the winter is colder than usual.

The possibility is not far-fetched. It almost happened in January 2004. Today, supplies are already stretched, because of hurricane damage to terminals and other energy facilities on the Gulf Coast.

And it's too late this season to set up new terminals! We could see a Katrina-sized disaster. Manufacturing and other industries might have to shut down, throwing thousands out of work. People might lose their home heating. Schools and offices might close. The lights might start going out -- 40 percent of New England's electricity is generated with natural gas. Prices of many things would skyrocket.

Ultimately, many people would have to seek shelters, because 46 percent of our region's population depends on natural gas for heat. Some people might freeze to death.

The editorial notes that we should approve more terminals because, among other reasons, LNG tankers have an extraordinarily good safety record. The tankers have had so few accidents that we should allow more of them into our bays and harbors and shipping channels. I haven't spent too much time analyzing the Eastern Seaboard's energy needs and supplies. Nor have I been worrying about the safety of LNG tankers.

But if you have one car traveling on a stretch of highway, the transportation safety record is going to be much better than if you have 100. If you have one nuclear power plant, the chances of a radiation leak are going to be much less than if you have 100. If you roll the dice 10 times, you have a much better chance of getting snake eyes than if you roll them once. More LNG tankers will mean more chances to hit a reef, more chances for a captain to nod off when he should be paying attention, more chances for any number of potential calamities.

It still might be an acceptable risk, as the editorial says, and it could be that Providence is a good place for an LNG terminal. The Providence Journal is in a far better position to judge that than I am. But forget the idea that if we put more tankers on the high seas, shipping LNG is going to be as safe as it is now.


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